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Church leader enters hospice

"We've all been amazed by his strength, but that is changing,'' says an aide to United Methodist Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Terminally ill with cancer, Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, leader of 340,000 United Methodists in Florida, is under the care of Hospice in his native Georgia.

Henderson, 66, was diagnosed with myeloma, the most common form of bone marrow cancer, in 1999.

"He's critically ill," said the Rev. Keith Ewing, the bishop's administrative assistant.

"We've all been amazed by his strength, but that is changing. Last night I talked with Mrs. Henderson, and he's not as strong as when I saw him a week ago," Ewing said Monday.

Speaking from the bishop's Lakeland office, Ewing said he last saw Henderson on Nov. 26 in Atlanta, when they discussed church business.

"He was very alert, very strong in his vision for the annual conference and we were able to do business and he was thinking clearly," Ewing said. "I was told on that day he'd had 101 visitors. ... He's a person that's known globally." Henderson, the first African-American bishop to lead the Florida Annual Conference, was elected to the office in July 1996 and assumed the position that fall. He is spiritual leader of all United Methodists east of the Apalachicola River, including the Tampa Bay area.

Shortly after Henderson's illness was diagnosed, St. Petersburg resident James Lloyd Knox was asked to serve as interim bishop while Henderson took a six-month leave. Knox, who was bishop of the Alabama and North Georgia conferences before retiring, is again being called into service. On Dec. 1, Henderson asked Knox to act in an advisory capacity during his absence, Knox said.

"He's the most positive person I've ever known," said Knox, who considers Henderson a good friend.

Henderson once headed Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta. With about 8,000 members, it is the largest predominantly black United Methodist Church in the world. At the time of his election as bishop, he had been president of the historically black Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta.

Henderson has kept active despite his illness. On Oct. 5, he presided at a special one-day session of the Florida Annual Conference. He was last at his Lakeland office in early November and had planned to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Atlanta, but was admitted to an Atlanta Hospice facility on Nov. 21.

The bishop is credited with bringing new members into the conference of more than 700 churches, and 1999 was the first year in eight that there had been an increase in membership, Ewing said.

"I am convinced that much of that is due to his enthusiastic leadership. His vision for the annual conference is threefold. First, it's to win persons for Jesus Christ. It's to make sure that children who live in marginal situations are cared for by the church. And the third part of his vision is that the United Methodist Church is faithful to its heritage."

Ewing, who has worked with Henderson since January 1997, said he has been impressed with Henderson's love for people.

"He always says, "You may be able to outthink me. You may be able to understand things better than I, but you cannot out-love me.' ... His Christian love is just contagious."

Henderson and his wife, Dorothye, have one daughter, Leah, and two grandsons.

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